The sets, costumes and props for The Peony Pavilion, a 16th century Chinese opera that was to be the centerpiece of the 1998 Lincoln Center Festival, will reach the U.S. next week, but so far there is no production attached to them.
After a week of what were described as frustrating and largely unproductive negotiations, Festival Director Nigel Redden wrested the opera's trappings from the Shanghai Bureau of Culture and its director, Ma Bomin, who seized the materials on June 18. Ma, however, is still demanding changes in the production which she has criticized for its portrayal of China.
The mood at Lincoln Center is frenzied, though slightly more optimistic than it was two days ago. At that time, upon learning that the sets would not leave Shanghai by the deadline of June 25, Lincoln Center Chairman Beverly Sills stated, "the Bureau of Culture has constructively canceled the engagement of The Peony Pavilion as part of Lincoln Center Festival 98." There is now some hope that the show may yet open the festival July 7 as originally scheduled.
Still, the opera lacks a cast. According to Lincoln Center, the Shanghai Kunju Opera Company, which is presenting The Peony Pavilion, is holding rehearsals in Shanghai to make the alterations demanded by Ma. Sills said this was "contrary to our contract with the company. Lincoln Center has always maintained it is only interested in presenting the production that has been directed by Chen Shi-Zheng."
The 1598 work by Tang Xianxu, which tells the erotic story of a young woman who meets her lover in a dream, has been long censored in China. Ma has said it was the bureau's intention to make appropriate revisions in the work before it traveled abroad. In a statement, she accused Chen of infusing the ancient opera with "feudal," "ignorant" and "pornographic" aspects. Unless there is some intervention in the situation by President Clinton, who is now visiting China, it seems unlikely the production would meet the approval of Ma by July 3, the day the opera's actors are to depart for the U.S. Nevertheless, efforts at reconciliation continue. "We are working with Ms. Ma and the bureau on their requirement that some of the staging be changing and be cut," said festival publicist Eileen McMahon. She added that the delay in the arrival of the sets and costumes would require "round-the-clock" work if the show it to meet the July 7 premiere date. "Getting the sets and costumes this late is a burden," she said.
Meanwhile, Redden and Chen will examine the changes in the opera being suggested by the bureau and Ma, who is a former opera singer herself. Sills stressed, however, that "only those revisions approved by Mr. Chen will be in the production which is presented at Lincoln Center."
-- By Robert Simonson